Monday, November 30, 2009

movie monday: Coco Before Chanel

One of my new goals is to start seeing movies in the theater again. My specific plan is to treat myself to a film every Friday night at the Spectrum, the local, independent art house theater, which is conveniently located next to the New World Bistro Bar, my favorite restaurant in town, where I'll treat myself to a glass of wine after the show. I started my new tradition last Friday, and I had so much fun. I'll post my movie reviews here on Monday mornings.

The movie: Coco Before Chanel is aptly titled; it follows Coco Chanel from her time in an orphanage, but it stops where most people become familiar with her story. The film stars the delightful Audrey Tatou as Coco. Perhaps my favorite thing about Coco Before Chanel was it's honesty. I confess to loving the feel-good rags to riches biopics as much as anyone, but it's rare to see a biographical film provide hope with honesty and without sappiness. Most of the film is not feel good. It's hardly depressing, but it is real. Coco didn't have an easy life. She and her sister were orphans, and they fought for opportunities. Coco makes some decisions she may not be proud of, but she doesn't regret them. She doesn't have the dream of becoming a fashion designer from day one, just as few of us truly know what we'll end up doing from the beginning. Her skills, experience and desire for self-sufficiency slowly evolve to lead her to it.

The film is a little slow, but it's similar to the pace of her life. It seems like it's not going anywhere for awhile, and if you didn't know what Chanel is, you might think that. I personally thought the subtitles were a little fast. My French is decent enough to understand some of the dialogue, but I often read the subtitle before the characters had begun to speak their lines. The beautiful lulls of dialogue featured the next subtitle, which threw off the pace a bit for me.

The beauty of the film comes in its last half hour, when it becomes clear the slowness was in fact subtlety leading to a mesmerizing and poetic final half-hour. It's the kind of film one might be tempted to stop watching if she were at home, but ends up loving. It truly is a film that is the sum of it's parts. It works as a whole, but it's not necessarily riveting from the opening frame.

It's a beautifully feminist film; it's an honest look at one woman's struggle and journey for her place in the world. It's not a film with universal appeal, but it is a fantastic, beautiful, and inspiring film. If you like foreign films, historical films, biopics and strong female leads, then I highly recommend this film.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Release date: September 2009 in the U.S. Here's a map of where this film is currently playing! There's no word on dvd release yet.
Source: I saw it at my local, independent, art house movie theater

Sunday, November 29, 2009

sunday salon: Thanksgiving wrap-up

While Thanksgiving brings wonderful time spent with family and friends, as well as a few days to relax, the most exciting about Thanksgiving for a graduate student is knowing the end of the semester is almost here. There may be a lot to get done in the next two weeks, but I'm already looking forward to the ability to read, relax and watch movies without feeling guilty.

I also became an Amazon Associate this week. You should notice the Amazon search box to the right of this post. You'll also notice a link to purchase each book I review at the bottom of posts. The program is rather simple: when you click on links from my site to purchase things at Amazon, I get a small percentage commission; you pay the same price. While it's not secret I want a Kindle, I decided to stop hoping I win one and start making plans to buy one. I'll use the money I earn through the Amazon Associate program to finance my Kindle. I hope the advertising won't be distracting. I don't have high expectations for revenue, but every cent helps!

Books finished this week: 
  • A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd - I was thrilled to discover this new to me author and a new series for this author.
  • The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi - I'm so glad I finally got around to reading Persepolis, and I look forward to reading more of Satrapi's work.
  • No Time to Wave Goodbye by Jacquelyn Mitchard, the sequel to Deep End of the Ocean will be reviewed Tuesday.
Currently reading: A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve. Somehow, I've never read Anita Shreve, and I'm really enjoying this novel so far. I've read some middling reviews, so I'm curious to see how my opinion changes as the book goes on. I'm already smitten with Shreve's writing, however, and plan to read more of her books.

Movies seen (I finally got around to hooking up my Netflix account to the xbox 360, so we can now watch instantly through the television. I can't believe it took me this long to set it up, but I immediately cancelled HBO. I'm a convert, and thus, I will be watching and reviewing more movies in the coming months!):
  • To Catch a Thief  - We watched this movie on Thanksgiving, and I haven't seen it in years. It was so much fun! I adore Cary Grant, but I was most amazed how visually stunning the film was and how it didn't seem outdated. 
  • Casino Royals - We also watched Daniel Craig's first foray as James Bond on Thanksgiving. I really enjoy this movie, especially the ending scenes in Venice, one of my favorite cities in the world. 
  • Coco Before Chanel - I went to see this lovely French film Friday night, and my review will be posted Monday as part of my new Movie Monday feature.
  • Brodre - I watched the Danish film that the upcoming Brothers (starring Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire) is based on. I'll offer a comparative review when I see Brothers, but in the meantime, if Brothers is anywhere near as good as Brodre, it should be a major player at the Oscars this year.
Happy reading!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

graphic novel review: The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

The Complete Persepolis contains Persepolis and Persepolis 2 in one volume. Although there is no indication where the second volume begins, there is a shift in the story. Persepolis is an autobiography in graphic novel. Marjane Satrapi grew up in Iran, and the book is as much a story of the Persian people and Iran's history as it is her own. It's a fascinating look at a country and its history, but it's most remarkable seen through the eyes of a child. It's incredibly moving to think and see how much geography plays into our own sense of self and autobiography.

From a visual standpoint, Persepolis is simple and beautiful. There are frames so packed with meaning, I would stare at them for a few minutes. I would gladly hand several on my wall. It's an incredibly accessible graphic novel, as it's rather verbose, but Satrapi's drawings are powerful.

Persepolis is clearly a powerful book, and I do believe it's an important book, particularly for Westerners. I think it's wonderful and smart, but I didn't quite love it. It moved me deeply, but there was some unknown element inhibiting my full personal enjoyment.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Pages: 352
Publication: October 2007
Source: my local public library

Buy The Complete Persepolis from Amazon. (As an Amazon affiliate, I will receive a small percentage of the sale; it does not affect the price you pay for the item.)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

book review: A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd

I've been craving mysteries lately, especially historical mysteries. I read a few glowing reviews of A Duty to the Dead, the first in a new historical mystery series by Charles Todd. The reviews were right.

The novel is set in 1916, and it opens with the British hospital ship Britanic being hit. The action grabbed me right away, and I instantly felt an affinity for Bess, the narrator. She's an army nurse and an independent woman.

The crux of the novel is unraveling the mysterious final message a dying solider entrusted Bess with. She has romantic feelings for him, and she takes the post-Britanic break to visit his family to deliver his dying message. Bess is smart, proper and independent all at the same time. The prose flows beautifully, and the setting is luscious.

I loved this book, and I read it in less than a day. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to the next Bess Crawford novel! I'm also eager to read Charles Todd's other mystery series featuring Ian Rutledge. There are eleven novels in that series so far. There is also one stand alone novel, The Murder Stone. Charles Todd is actually Caroline and Charles Todd (Caroline was robbed!), a mother and son writing team.

Have you read the Ian Rutledge series? How do they compare to Duty to the Dead?

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Pages: 336 pages
Publication date: August 25, 2009
Source: my local public library 

Buy A Duty to the Dead: A Bess Crawford Mystery from Amazon now!
(By clicking this link, I will receive a small percentage referral bonus from Amazon, which does not affect the price you pay.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

waiting on wednesday: Hell Gate by Linda Fairstein

Jill at Breaking the Spine hosts Waiting on Wednesday, a weekly event to highlight a not-yet-released title you're excited about.

It's no secret I'm a huge fan of Linda Fairstein and her Alexandra Cooper mysteries. I discovered the series a in 2003, and I always look forward to the latest installment. Fairstein's writing continues to improve, and her novels are a beautiful mix of compelling mystery and informative, especially about the history of New York City.

Fairstein's twelfth Alexandra Cooper novel, Hell Gate, comes out on March 9, 2010. In Hell Gate, Alex finds her attention torn between investigating a shipwreck that has contraband cargo-human cargo-and the political sex scandal of a promising New York congressman now fallen from grace. When Alex discovers that a woman from the wreck and the congressman's lover have the same rose tattoo-the brand of a "snakehead", a master of a human trafficking operation-it dawns on her that these cases aren't as unrelated as they seem and that the entire political landscape of New York City could hang in the balance of her investigation. As Alex looks on at the nameless victims in the morgue, she realizes she's looking at the present-day face of New York's long, dark tradition of human trafficking-a tradition that began hundreds of years ago with slave trade from Africa, now a multimillion-dollar industry that will stop at no cost, even if that cost is Alex's life.

To tide myself over, I'll reread a few older Linda Fairstein novels, but Penguing/Dutton, I'd love an advanced copy!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

book review: Driving Sideways by Jess Riley

Driving Sideways is Jess Riley's first, and sadly, only novel to date. It's the story of 28-year-old Leigh Fielding, who has just received a kidney transplant and a new outlook on life. After not expecting to live past her 30th birthday, Leigh decides to live boldly for once and take a road trip from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin to Los Angeles, where her mother, who left when she was five, lives. Along the way, she stops to see her college boyfriend, her best friend, and the family of the man who donated her kidney.

The description of the book does not begin to do it justice, and I'm not a fan of the cover. I read this book because I'd read so many great reviews. It's a road trip novel for my generation. I love Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and this book captures it's spirit but bears little other resemblance besides the a prominent road trip. Leigh is irreverent, funny, smart, grounded, and delightful. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and I adore it's ability to be both meaningful and amusing. It's a delightful blend of light-hearted fun and real-life worry. It's never too heavy, or too light, and Riley achieves balance with story and characters.

If you're under the age of 35 (perhaps even 40), then you'll love this book. If not, then you might miss some of the humor and pop culture references. I do worry many of the pop cultural references will become obsolete, antiquated or less funny in the coming years, so read it now!

I sincerely hope Jess Riley has another novel coming out because this one was a fantastic novel, and an even better first novel.

Rating: 5 stars
Pages: 352
Publication: 2008
Source: my local public library

Monday, November 23, 2009

book review: Evil at Heart by Chelsea Cain

Evil at Heart is the third book in Chelsea Cain's Gretchen Lowell series. I enjoyed the first two, and this one did not disappoint either. Gretchen Lowell is on the run, and Archie is staying in a psychiatric ward by choice. To many, many people, however, Gretchen has become a hero. There are fan sites, "Run, Gretchen!" t-shirts, and a Beauty Killer manicure (like a French one, but with blood red tips instead of white). There's even a fake fan site, and it's fantastic. The book gives us the perfect set-up: there are bodies with Gretchen's signature, but no one can tell if she's killing again, manipulating people to kill for her, or if it's purely the work of her fans trying to emulate her. "Portland seemed divided into two groups of people these days--people who wanted to get as far away from Gretchen's crime scenes as possible, and people who wanted to rub up against her corpses" (p. 122).

Chelsea Cain infuses her characters with joy, humor and humanity. Yes, it's a book about a deranged, beautiful female serial killer. Yes, there is some gore so gruesome it is hard to read. Mostly, though, this book focuses on Susan, Archie and Henry as humans. They tell jokes. There's character development, real newspaper politics (Gretchen Lowell sells papers, but is she really responsible for these deaths?), and the city of Portland shines almost as a character itself.

I worried this series was in danger of fizzling out, but Evil at Heart is the best book yet. If you haven't read the first two, please read them first. If you didn't like the second book as much, read this one; I think it will change your mind. I'm sure there will be another book in this successful series, and I hope at some point for some sort of prequel. I'm utterly fascinated by Gretchen's mysterious upbringing. I'm sure Cain will give us the answers eventually, and they'll be wilder than I can even imagine.

On the grander level, I admire Chelsea Cain for writing a feminist novel about a torturous serial killer. Cain exposes the flaws of all of our society's views of gender with Gretchen. A beautiful woman doesn't seem threatening, yet she's killed more than 200 people. For once, a serial killer is brutalizing men more than young, pretty women. She's a master manipulator, but she's also brilliant and physically strong; her deranged mind is her most powerful weapon. She's neither hero nor anti-hero, but she is an indirect voice for feminism. Gretchen Lowell is a wonderful example of equality. Perhaps gender subversion isn't Cain's intention, but it's a wonderful by-product.

Rating: 4.25 stars (out of 5)
Pages: 320
Publication date: September 2009
Source: Marcia from The Printed Page gave me her ARC 

Sunday, November 22, 2009

sunday salon: the importance of negative reviews

The Importance of Negative Reviews:
Earlier this week I posted a review of Behind the Bell by Dustin Diamond. I considered not reviewing the book because it was so bad, but after a few people asked me how I liked it, I decided to review it. Many bloggers don't post negative reviews, and I respect that. I was blown away by the positive comments I got on my incredibly negative review. Most commenters thanked me for my honesty, and it got me thinking about negative reviews in the larger context. I think they're important, and I don't come across very many of them.

Reading is about personal taste, and simply knowing what books I like doesn't tell the whole story. I write reviews because looking at a star rating only tells part of the story. I give a lot of four-star reviews. I'm pretty good at finding books I enjoy to read, and I think most book bloggers agree. There are authors I always enjoy, books in a series I like, and recommendations from those whose taste is similar to mine. Perhaps also we don't finish the books we dislike.

Most books that get a four-star rating from me get it for different reasons. Rating a book is complicated, and I take a lot of things into consideration. The two biggest criteria for me are the quality of the book and how much I enjoyed reading it. I recently read Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. I gave it three stars, even though I didn't like it. It was beautifully written, and I really enjoyed the first one hundred pages. I think it's a book worth reading, even though I didn't like it. I read some books that are not especially well-written but incredibly entertaining (the early Sookie Stackhouse books come to mind), and I think of them as four-star books largely because of how much I enjoy reading them. I like ratings, but explaining why a book gets its rating is more important to me.

I know my taste is not universal. I never want to write a negative review for the sake of writing a negative review, nor do I want to write a positive review for the sake of writing a positive review. Reading is an incredibly personal and often emotional experience. I admire writers, and I don't want to engage in ego boosting or personal attacks; I want to write about my personal reactions to books. I will continue to write negative reviews. I will continue to write honest reviews, both positive and negative. Calling a book the worst book I've ever read, as I did this week, requires justification. There is often a fine line between being honest and being mean, and I think I achieved it.

What do you think about negative reviews?

Reading update:
I finished Evil at Heart, the latest Chelsea Cain novel about Gretchen Lowell, and my review will be posted tomorrow. I also finished Driving Sideways by Jess Riley, which will be reviewed Tuesday.

Want to win a Kindle?
It's no secret I want a Kindle, and there is little to no chance I'll get one for Christmas. Thankfully, Bibliofreakblog is still hosting her fantastic giveaway. If you enter via this link (or the one on the top of the right sidebar, then I get one entry too.)

Coolest thing about being a book blogger this week:
Robin Maxwell emailed me after my Waiting on Wednesday post about her latest novel, O, Juliet, which comes out in February, and offered me an advanced copy of the book when it's finished. It's always a joy to hear from authors, but to receive an early copy of a book I can't wait to read was completely unexpected and incredibly exciting!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

children's graphic novel review: Kristy's Great Idea

I grew up reading The Baby-Sitters Club series. I remember seeing a display of the first four in the series in a bookstore and asking my father to buy them for me. I think he only bought me one or two that day, and he told me I could have the next ones when I finished those. Thus began my monthly trip to the bookstore to get the latest book. I began to outgrow them somewhere around the 120th book. I loved the movie, and I watched the tv show. I played the board game with anyone who would play with me, and often with myself.

When I stumbled across news that there was now a graphic novel series, I immediately wanted to read it. The first four books in the original series have been transformed by Raina Telgemeier into graphic novels. The characters were immediately recognizable, which was wonderful. After all of the book covers, the tv show and the film, there are many images of each character out there, but Ms. Telgemeier did a fantastic job of making them look the way I think they should. As a fan of the series growing up, I was amazed how many details of their lives came back to me as soon as I started reading it. As a reader of the series, I was always a little annoyed at how much of each book was spent reminding me who the characters were. Seeing their personalities expressed visually rather than with words was fantastic.

I am not the target audience for this book, but I really enjoyed it. It was a fast read, and it was fun. There was so much joy in the characters. I am an incredibly visual person, and it was wonderful to see so many minor characters shine through their physical depiction. If you were a fan of the books, I highly recommend this trip down memory lane. It's fun. I don't know if the original books are still read, but the graphic novels truly do put a fresh face on the series, and yet, they're still true to the original. Kudos to Raina Telgemeier.

The good news: the first four books in the series are graphic novels. The bad news: Scholastic has no plans to continue the graphic novel series. The related news: Raine Telgemeier has a new book coming out in February 2010: Smile.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Pages: 192 
Publication date: 2006
Source: my local public library

children's book review: Diary of Wimpy Kid #3 - The Last Straw by Jeff Kinney

I've really enjoyed the first two books in Jeff Kinney's hilarious Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. The third is more of the same. Honestly, the books are starting to run together for me at this point, which is not necessarily a bad thing. There is an overarching problem and resolution in each book, but for the most part, the books are all collections of funny stories. To some extent, the stories could be mixed and matched within the books. It's a joy to have a series of books that don't rely on what came before them. (I love books in a series, and I grew up on Sweet Valley Twins, Baby-Sitters Club, Fantastic Five, Sleepover Friends, etc., but I would never dream of reading them out of order. Harry Potter beautifully builds on past actions; you can't read them out of order.) Parents, teachers, independent booksellers and librarians can hand a child, even a reluctant reader, a Wimpy Kid book, and it won't really matter which one it is. It's a fantastic, hilarious series. It encourages children to read, write and draw. There are some smart jokes, and there are some low-brow jokes, but it still works.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Pages: 224 pages
Publication: Spring 2009
Source: my local public library

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Waiting on Wednesday: O, Juliet by Robin Maxwell

Jill at Breaking the Spine hosts Waiting on Wednesday, a weekly event encouraging bookbloggers take Wednesdays to feature an upcoming book they're excited about.

This week I've selected the new novel by Robin Maxwell, author of several historical novels. 

O, Juliet is the story of Juliet Capelletti. Yes, Robin Maxwell is taking on Shakespeare's beloved Romeo and Juliet, and I can't wait to read it. I've never read Robin Maxwell before, despite her books always sounding interesting to me. This book is definitely on my wish list. I first read Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade, and I absolutely adored it. Something about that play speaks to me. The last time I was in Venice, I dragged nomadreaderboy to Verona to see the home "Juliet" grew up in. It was overrun with tourists, but I still loved it. I gladly posed with the statue of Juliet and purchased a t-shirt. To read a retelling of this play will surely be a joy. 

The only bad news: the book won't be published until February 2, 2010. The good news: I get married five days later. Is there a better book to read on the eve of one's wedding than a retelling of one of the greatest love stories ever? 

Monday, November 16, 2009

book review: Behind the Bell by Dustin Diamond

I grew up watching Saved by the Bell. I remember when it premiered, and I watched it obsessively ever after. Seriously, for a few years when it was in syndication, I watched it for two hours EVERY DAY. I liked Saved by the Bell: The College Years. I still recognize random guest stars when they appear on other shows now. I can still recite dialog and song lyrics from the show. I had the cd for years after it stopped being cool. (Yes, it was cool for awhile).

Given my history of enjoyment with this show, I was excited to read Dustin Diamond's memoir about the show, Behind the Bell. I didn't even have high expectations, as celebrity memoirs are rarely well written, but I had to read it.

It's the worst book I've ever read. Ever.

I contemplated not blogging about because people already will either want to read it despite it's lack of literary virtue or want to read it because of the subject. This review will not change anyone's mind.

Despite the book itself being horrible, there clearly was no editor. The grammar was appallingly bad. The former copy editor in me wanted to take a red pen to it even though it was a library book. Words were misspelled. He used idiotic words such as douchenozzle to make a point. He also writes moronic, vague sentences, then follows them with the sentence "What I mean to say is this." (Say what you mean! Use your words!) The literary violations extend beyond letting the author have artistic control. The most egregious error: when the word horseshit needed a hypen to split it onto two lines, the hyphen appeared between the s and the h. Yes, horses-hit. How does that even happen in the post-typewriter world?

When I could get past the cringing from his complete misuse of me, myself and I, as well as that, which, who and whom, the memoir was unnecessarily mean and condescending to every other human being in the world, past, present and future. Diamond showed no perspective, decency or rationality. He writes off people he met as a child. Yes, I understand you thought Fred Savage was spoiled when he was eight. Does it mean he still is? Perhaps, but none of us can stand the scrutiny of the actions of our eight-year-old selves. He boasted about his own sexual exploits while deriding others for it. Although he is ridiculously misogynistic, he seems to hold sexual adventure against everyone but himself. Yes, this derision includes the women he slept with; he's incredibly hateful to them.

I finished the book, but it was uncomfortable to read. I'm not a prudish person, but it was hard to read the words of someone so clearly unable to let go of his hatred for so many people, places, situations and things. Diamond needs therapy. He needs an editor. He needs a fact checker. Mostly, he needs to find something to enjoy. He needs to find some sense of meaning in his life. It was uncomfortable to read because he's a human being.

Rating: 0 stars (Hated it. Seriously, don't waste your time. It's completely lacking any redeeming qualities.)
Pages: 288
Publication date: September 2009
Source: my local public library

Sunday, November 15, 2009

sunday salon: the week in review

It was a weak reading week for me. The end of the semester crunch is here, and I'm frantically finishing final projects. I'm currently reading The Fifth Servant by Kenneth Wishnia, which is a fascinating mystery set in the Jewish ghetto of Prague in 1592. It's not, however, the light reading I've been craving this week with school stress. Thus, I'm also reading the third Diary of a Wimpy Kid novel because it is delightful, hilarious and light.

Books finished this week:
  • Dead to the World by Charlaine Harris
  • Behind the Bell by Dustin Diamond
Books received for review:
  • Season of Ash by Jorge Volpi from Library Thing Early Reviewers
  • Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson from the publisher
On my television: 
I'm still enjoying Brick City, the five part documentary series about Newark on the Sundance Channel. It aired in September, but thanks to my DVR, I'm finally watching it. 

I also caught up on The Good Wife, which is my favorite new show this season.

I am almost caught up on the new episodes of Law & Order. It's enjoying another fantastic season, but I fear no one realizes Friday night is a good night to watch it. Jeremy Sisto is outstanding, and I'm really enjoying seeing more of Lt. Van Buren's personal life and battle with cancer.

Cool contests:
  • Lisa McMann is holding a huge contest gearing up for the release of Gone, the follow-up to Wake and Fade I'm desperately trying to get my hands on an ARC of the book as an early wedding present. Gone comes out ton February 9, two days after I get married.
  • Want to win a Kindle II? I do! I know the chances of getting one for Christmas are slim to none, so I'm resorting to winning one (a girl can dream!). Bibliofreak is hosting The Great Kindle II Giveaway. When you enter through this link, I get an extra entry too! There are lots of ways to enter. Happy Kindle II wishing! To remind you, I'll keep the button on the right sidebar until the contest ends. Thanks Bibliofreak!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

book review: Dead to the World by Charlaine Harris

Dead to the World is the fourth book in successful Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris.

This book will contain some minor spoilers if you haven't read the first three books in the series.

Dead to the World picks up where Club Dead left off. Only a few days have passed, and it's the turn of a new year. Once again, Bill is about to leave, this time for Peru. Sookie's New Year's resolution is not getting beat up. Naturally, trouble finds dear Sookie as she's conscientiously driving home from work. She spots Eric running barefoot and half naked. When she stops, he has no idea who she is or who he is. What luck Sookie was driving by! Soon, dear Sookie has yet another new type of magical creature to deal with: witches who drink vampire blood, and many of them are also weres or shifters, so they're REALLY powerful. Ugh.

I found the plot of this book rather ridiculous. Eric isn't too much fun when he's not Eric. He's also not nearly as fun when he's not competing with Bill. Mostly, I'm tired of Sookie, and I want to smack some sense into her. She has some sense of feminism, but mostly, she hides from it. She spends so much time resenting that people assume she's dumb because she's an uneducated barmaid, yet every time she uses a word more than seven letters long, she must mention to the reader she read it on her word of the day calendar. Sookie's word of the day calendar is almost as annoying as Robert Langdon's Mickey Mouse watch.

Also, Sookie's sex drive and moral relativism are beyond annoying. Her pride about money is annoying. I haven't enjoyed the last two books, and I'm starting to think it's not a coincidence Bill hasn't been around. For some reason, Bill mellows Sookie out enough for me. When she's left to her own devices, I'm not a fan.

I really enjoyed the first two books in this series. I loved the ways Harris imagined an entire society where vampires had politically figured out a way to enter. The last two books, however, have veered into the absurd. Yes, it was always fantasy, but it was initially heavily rooted in reality. It's official: I'm taking a break from Sookie. I won't say I won't read the next book, but I need a break. I can't handle spending time with a character I don't like. I wish Bill would take Sookie away to one of his far off locales soon so she could see the world outside Bon Temps, Louisiana and get some more perspective that her definition of a woman is far too narrow.

Recently, I watched the first two episodes of True Blood, and I really like it. For me, it's true to my feelings of the first two books. Like Buffy, one of my favorite shows ever, it's grounded in reality, or at least the illusion of it. Although I'm taking a break from the books, I'm eager to watch more of the tv show.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Pages: 291
Publication date: May 2004
Source: my local public library

Friday, November 13, 2009

children's book review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid #2 - Rodrick Rules by Jeff Kinney

I loved the first book in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, and this one is almost as good. Greg is back with his diary that features his simple and usually hilarious cartoons. Not much has changes, which is a little confusing, as the first book covered an entire year, yet Greg appears to be the same age.

Fans of the first one will likely delight in this one too. For me, as an adult reader, there was a little more of a "woe is me" attitude about Greg's dealings with his older brother, Rodrick. His interactions with Rodrick lacked a little bit of humor for me. Rodrick seems to get away with everything, while Greg gets away with nothing. While I don't doubt Greg feels this way, the first book had a touch more humor when dealing with things Greg perceived as unfair. The scenes with Rodrick were my least favorite, but the rest of the book was up to its old form.

Greg's mom is in serious danger of stealing the show. Her quiet hilarity is fantastic, and I hope this trend continues. The best part of the book for me was the hysterical take on something very similar to Dungeons and Dragons. Although I've never played the game, it often appears in pop culture in tv shows, movies and books I enjoy. Diary of a Wimpy Kid had the best scenes and treatment I've seen of Dungeons and Dragons. Those scenes alone almost made me give this book five stars too. If you haven't read the series, start with the first one. It's delightful for parents and children alike.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Pages: 224
Publication: February 1, 2008
Source: my local public library

Thursday, November 12, 2009

book review: Empowered by Sheryl Ellinwood

Read this book. You can still read my review to find out why, or you can take my word for it and just go buy a few copies for the women in your life.

Empowered is a fascinating and informative look at breast cancer from the perspective of a survivor who took her diagnosis as a wake up call to understand the disease medically, socially and politically. Sheryl Ellinwood certainly shares bits of her own experience of dealing with the diagnosis and choosing a course of treatment, but it's not a memoir. Instead, Ellinwood thoughtfully organizes and recaps her extensive personal research about breast cancer for the reader.

The numbers: There were certainly some surprises to me, but even as someone who is rather well informed, it was fantastic to have all of this information in one place. One in seven U.S. women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, and that number keeps going up. Only 10% of breast cancer is genetic. Where is it coming from? Why are the numbers in the U.S. much bigger than the rest of the world? We need to educate ourselves about this disease.

The politics: It's no secret the pharmaceutical companies are in the business of making money. Our entire health care system is structured to heal rather than prevent. Of course, we need healing, but better health and prevention is desperately needed. Breast cancer treatment varies throughout the world. If the U.S. has the highest rates, take a look at how the rest of the world treats breast cancer.

The biggest surprises that shouldn't be surprises: 

  1. Breast cancer is not a monolithic beast. There are many, many kinds, yet the treatment is usually the same. Ellinwood took control of her diagnosis, learned what the distinctions were, and worked with her doctors to personalize her treatment. Her research is impressive, and there are links throughout the book (and on her Web site) connecting the reader to the original documents. Treatment is an incredibly personal decision, but you must understand what's happening to your body to adequately make those tough decisions.
  2. If only 10% is genetic, and the number of cases is rising, we're not only not preventing this disease, we're welcoming it. Ellinwood traces the impact of what we eat, drink and put on our bodies. It's a sobering look at the country we live in and the products we use. 
The bottom line: Read this book. It's ridiculously informative, inspiring and a little scary. I already avoided packaged and processed foods for the most part, carry an aluminum water bottle, buy all of my groceries at my local natural food coop, and I still made changes to my diet and lifestyle after reading this book. I partly made changes to prevent cancer, but the strategies for prevention are welcome health additions. The combination of science, personal experience, social impact and politics and refreshing and necessary.

Buying books for Christmas? This book would be a welcome addition to any woman's shelf.

I also thoroughly recommend Sheryl Ellinwood's blog. She updates the latest information, as books of a timely nature such as this need. There are also some excellent recipes! You can buy the book directly from the Web site, but it's also carried by and other major outlets.

Thank you to Sheryl Ellinwood for providing me a copy of this book for review. It's out of my normal comfort zone, but it truly changed the way I live my life.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5 stars) - universally recommended
Pages: 140 pages
Publication date: October 2009
Source: the author provided a copy of this book for me to review

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

waiting on wednesday: Dear Money by Martha McPhee

Jill at Breaking the Spine hosts Waiting on Wednesday, a weekly event encouraging bookbloggers take Wednesdays to feature an upcoming book they're excited about.

This week's offering I discovered indirectly through Twitter. Martha McPhee  started following me, so I visited her Web site to see who she was. There, I discovered her latest novel, Dear Money, which sadly will not be published until June of 2010.

Before I even got to the description, I was hooked by this comment from Joseph O'Neill (Joseph O'Neill!!!!): "a skilled, always gripping satire of our foolish age."

The description of the actual book sounds great too. It begins, "In this Pygmalion tale of a novelist turned bond trader, Martha McPhee brings to life the greed and riotous wealth of New York during the heady days of the second gilded age." 

Visit Martha McPhee's Web site to read more about it! 

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

book review: Earthly Pleasures by Karen Neches

Earthy Pleasures is a delightful book unlike anything I've ever read. It's difficult to describe. At first, I would have said it was the intersection of chick lit and science fiction, but the more I read, I saw the novel went far deeper than simply chick lit and involved a bit of a mystery as well. (I don't mean to malign chick lit; I enjoy it, but my definition of chick lit is lighthearted. If it's weighty, it veers into literary fiction or contemporary (or historical) fiction for me. Simply having a main female characters or characters, or being written by a woman, does not make it chick lit.) Earthly Pleasures first introduces us to Heaven (the place). It's a fascinating idea of what heaven would be like, but as you might expect, the recently dead often have trouble adjusting to a place where they can have anything they want. Skye, our heroine of sorts, is a greeter in heaven; she helps new arrivals deal with their transition.

Just as I was enjoying the idea of a future WishBerry, which instantly delivers anything you desire, a new chapter from another point of view would begin. I soon realized this story was going someplace deeper. Indeed, it explores the connections between heaven and earth, and the living and the dead. I didn't find it to have a religious bent, and I'm still not quite sure how seriously I should take the novel, but I did thoroughly enjoy it. It was part escapist, but it was also thought provoking. Neches danced around a lot of issues, and I think plenty of readers could enjoy it and not dwell on it. I, however, keep thinking about it. The book itself has several humorous moments and is not necessarily weighty, but it certainly deals with weighty issues, albeit sometimes in a lighthearted manner. At the end of the book, I'm still a little unsure what the author's intentions were. I was certainly entertained, and there was a strong sense of seriousness as well. I'm curious how much of my reaction to the book was intended and how much is just me. The book is certainly smart and witty, and I loved it. If you're in the mood for a captivating, unique, partially science fiction read, then this book is for you. Karen Neches has a Web site, mostly devoted to Earthly Pleasures too.

Rating: 4.25 stars (out of 5)
Pages: 311
Publication: 2008
Source: my local public library

Monday, November 9, 2009

book review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

I am perhaps one of the last readers who has never read The Time Travelers Wife. I keep meaning to, but it never finds its way to the top of my pile. Earlier this year, I read and enjoyed both of Audrey Niffenegger's illustrated novels: The Three Incestuous Sisters and The Adventuress. Still, going into Her Fearful Symmetry, I'd read several rave reviews and a few mixed reviews. I didn't know what to expect, and although I had high hopes, I kept my expectations a little lower.

Her Fearful Symmetry is essentially the story of two sets of twins: Elspeth and Edie; and Edie's daughters Julie and Valentina. The story begins with Elspeth's death in London. The details are vague, both for the characters and the reader, as to what exactly happened to these sisters that they don't speak. Elspeth leaves her London flat, which overlooks Highland Cemetary, to Julie and Valentina on three conditions. First, the girls must live there for one year before they sell it. Second, their parents may never enter it. Third, the girls must wait until they turn twenty-one to move in. The apartment has a motley crew of characters: Robert, who was Elspeth's long-time lover and companion, but they always kept separate apartments; and Martin, an OCD crossword writer whose wife, Marijke, has just left him and moved to Amsterdam.

I really enjoyed the first half of this book. The story was set up well, and I was eager to see where it went. (Side note: the library had a horror genre sticker on the book, which I think I added to my expectation of creepiness. The creepiness never fully materialized for me despite the presence of ghosts.) Niffenegger's writing is lovely and beautiful. This novel is incredibly well written, but unfortunately, it isn't really that good. There were some wonderful scenes and moments. My jaw dropped to the floor once, but my eyes also rolled a few times. As a reader, I was far more interested in the stories behind the scenes: Edie and Elspeth's, Edie and her husband, Elspeth and Robert, and Martin and Marijke. I found the younger twins rather annoying at times. The annoyance is perhaps a reflection on their age, but I wanted to shake some sense into them more than once. Their foolishness was dull rather than understandable. There wasn't enough of the story apart from the twins. The other characters in the building soon were too wrapped up in the twins' world for my taste.

There's a lot of good in Her Fearful Symmetry, both thematically and with Niffenegger's graceful prose, but at the end of the book, I simply didn't like it very much. I'm certainly glad I read it, but the promise of the book's first half was not only unfulfilled, it was in contrast to the second half. The book went from thoughtful and subtly creepy to unnecessary far too quickly. In the end, it's a beautifully written tale, and I will eagerly await Audrey Niffenegger's next novel. In the meantime, I still have The Time Traveler's Wife to read.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Pages: 416
Publication: September 29, 2009
Source: my local public library

Sunday, November 8, 2009

reading challenge: Christy Awards!

Yes, I swore off challenges because I don't like feeling pressured about what I read, but I have decided to sign up for The Christy Awards Challenge. The Christy Awards are a Christian book award that started in 2000. I've had the desire to start reading Christian fiction, but I wasn't quite sure where to start. I know there is good Christian fiction out there, but I'm sure there's some that would not work for me (as there is with almost any genre). The Christy Awards feature nine categories. To get a broad sampling of what kinds of Christian fiction are out there, I'm joining the challenge at Tier 4, where you mix and match winners. My challenge will be to read 7-9 winning books from any year. I plan to mostly read books from 2009, but I'm somewhat limited by what books my library has. If the library doesn't have the book, or if it really doesn't appeal to me, I'll try to find a book from another year in the same category.

The challenge started November 1, but it continues through December 1, 2010. With eight levels of participation to choose from, everyone can experience a little Christian fiction. There is also a perpetual challenge to read all nominated and winning books ever (and continuing with your lifetime) for the truly dedicated.

sunday salon: week in review

Currently reading: Dead to the World by Charlaine Harris. It's the fourth book in the Sookie Stackhouse series. It's also the first one I've read since starting to watch True Blood on dvd, so I'm curious to see if the reading experience changes. Club Dead was my least favorite in the series, and so far, Sookie is getting on my nerves like she did in that book. I'm hoping the action picks up soon!
Finished this week:
I had a fantastic week of reading. I read nine books this week, but one was a children's graphic novel and five were easy readers. I posted the five easy reader reviews as part of my 2008 Cybils Easy Reader feature. Look for reviews of these four books this week:
  • Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
  • Earthly Pleasures by Karen Neches
  • Empowered by Sheryl Ellinwood
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid #2: Rodrick Rules by Jeff Kinney
Book Received for Review this week:
  • The Postmistress by Sarah Blake 
Watching on tv:
I finally started watching Brick City, the 5-part Sundance documentary that aired in September. For one year, cameras followed Newark mayor Cory Booker, as well as the Newark Chief of Police, and a former Blood and a Crip who are now a couple. The first hour was mesmerizing and emotional. I was moved to tears and felt goosebumps at the possibility of real change. It's beautiful to see the community come together, but it's also heart-wrenching to watch the failures. It's not necessarily a feel good documentary, but it is inspiring. I'll post a full review when I watch the next four hours. It's coming out on dvd in December. 

Coolest effect of having a book blog:
This email from my father, a United Methodist pastor: "Just for your information, Kari and Lucas make an appearance at First Church in my sermon today.  Thanks for alerting me to their adventures and, more pertinent to the sermon, their friendship." I loved The Mystery of the Third Lucretia by Susan Runholt, and my parents both read it after reading my review. It's pretty cool to see the impact of a children's mystery on adults.

Friday, November 6, 2009

2008 Cybils Easy Readers Wrap-Up

I had so much fun reading the five finalists from the 2008 Cybils Easy Readers category. There were clear favorites (two five star reviews) and a clear least favorite (the lone three star review). It was quite difficult for me to choose a winner. I truly loved both I Will Surprise My Friend! and Mercy Watson Thinks Like a Pig. It's hard to compare and contrast because they're at wildly different reading levels to be considered in the same category. According to School Library Journal, I Will Surprise My Friend! is appropriate for kindergartners through second graders, and Mercy Watson is appropriate for grades 2-4. Perhaps I only hang out with advanced readers, but both of those ranges seem a little high to me. While elementary students may well enjoy I Will Surprise My Friend!, it seems to me to be more of a preschool and kindergarten book. I understand most children may not learn to read before first grade, and thus the easy reader definition for the Cybils works. Regardless, if the reader is the child, and the level is easy, these books are still rather disparate in reading level.

I'm glad I wasn't a voter for this round in the real Cybils (although I would love to serve on a future panel!), but if I were, I would have voted for I Will Surprise My Friend! by Mo Willems. The panel selected I Love My New Toy! by Mo Willems. We clearly agree on the talent of Mo Willems. Congratulations Mo!

children's book review: I Love My New Toy! by Mo Willems

Welcome to day five of my assessment of the 2008 Easy Readers Cybils awards. Today features I Love My New Toy! by Mo Willems, which one the award. Tomorrow I'll present my wrap-up and vote for my winner.

I documented my love for Mo Willems in Monday's review of I Will Surprise My Friend!, so I won't repeat myself. I love the Elephant and Piggie books, and despite being hilarious and clever, they don't need to be read in any particular order.

In I Love My New Toy!, Piggie has a new toy. Elephant, of course, wants to play with Piggie's toy. He promptly breaks it. Squirrel pops up to diffuse the situation in his own blissfully ignorant way. Once again, the characters are simple and complex; most importantly, they're nuances but true to their attributes. The focus is humor, and the "lesson" is secondary and tongue-in-cheek. As always, Mo Willems' drawings mimic his story: they're remarkable simple yet nuanced and complex.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Pages: 57
Publication date: 2008
Source: my local public library

Thursday, November 5, 2009

children's book review: Houndsley and Catina and the Quiet Time

It's day four of my week-long look at the 2008 Cybil Award Easy Reader finalists. Tomorrow I'll review the winning book, and Saturday I'll wrap-up my thoughts on the easy reader category and name my own winner.

Houndsley and Catina are a continuing set of characters. It's the first book I've read, so I can't say if one should read them in order or not. Houndsley, a dog, and Catina, a cat, appear to be roommates and best friends, although there may well be a romance or familial relation. It's the first snow of the winter, and Houndsley is thrilled. He loves to be snowed in an imagines their home to be like an island. Catina is not thrilled because she is very much looking forward to the concert tonight. She's been practicing for months. Slowly, Houndsley convinces her to join him on the island and think of all the fun things they can do without leaving home.

Houndsley and Catina are cute, and they both manage to have a mix of childlike and grown-up sensibilities. I appreciate that the story is mostly devoid of gendered behavior. Most importantly, Houndsley and Catina build snow creatures! I laughed out loud a few times, and it was an enjoyable book. It reminds me very much of the Frog and Toad books I loved when I was young. If Elephant and Piggie books are what your young, hip aunt buys for you, then Houndsley and Catina books are what your sweet grandmother buys for you. It was a nice book, but it does lack a little bit of the fun factor.

Like Mercy Watson, it is also a wonderful transition to chapter books. The pictures would not be out of place in a picture book. Marie-Louise Gay does a fantastic job illustrating. Houndsley and Catina would be a good choice for early chapter book readers and for reading aloud. It's divided into three chapters, but quick readers will finish it in one sitting.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Pages: 42
Publication: 2008
Source: my local public library

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

children's book review: Mercy Watson Thinks Like a Pig by Kate DiCamillo

Welcome to day three of my reviews of the 2008 Cybil Award finalists in the Easy Reader category.

Mercy Watson Thinks Like a Pig is the fifth book in the Mercy Watson series. I confess Chris Van Dusen's illustrations captured my attention first, but the combination of the story and the illustrations was perfect. The book itself is exactly what early chapter books should be: a combination of the familiar picture book and the soon-to-be familiar chapter book. The illustrations and font size are consistent with a picture book, but the page size and length are consistent with chapter books. Most importantly, the story and illustrations are delightful.

Mercy Watson is adorably precocious and utterly porcine. While Mercy is enjoying some fresh lemonade with her owners/parents, she smells fresh pansies and promptly wanders next door to eat them because they taste as good as they smell. Naturally, the neighbors are not pleased and call animal control. Hijinks ensue. DiCamillo mostly tells the story through simple words and phrases, but she also slips in more complex words, such as porcine, subtly. She deftly uses them in context that makes them clear to young readers. While these books are the perfect transition book from picture books to chapter books, they would also make excellent read aloud books for younger children.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5 stars)
Pages: 72
Publication date: 2008
Source: my local public library

Waiting on Wednesday: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Waiting on Wednesday is a new feature at nomadreader. Jill at Breaking the Spine hosts this weekly event encouraging book bloggers take Wednesdays to feature an upcoming book they're excited about.

Title: Remarkable Creatures
Author: Tracy Chevalier
What else has she written: Girl with a Pearl Earring (the basis for the film of the same name with Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson), Falling Angels, Burning Bright, The Lady and the Unicorn, and The Virgin Blue.
Pages: 320
Publication date: January 5, 2010

I am a huge fan of Tracy Chevalier. I first read Girl with a Pearl Earring because I love art history and novels about art history. Falling Angels is my favorite Chevalier book. It's a fictionalization of Emmaline Pankhurst and the British women's suffrage movement. I also loved The Lady and the Unicorn, another take on a famous work of art. I had the privilege to see the panels in Paris, and they truly came to life in new ways because of Chevalier's novel.

Remarkable Creatures is a fictionalized story of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot who were fossil collectors in the 19th Century. I know very little about them, and I'll wait until I read this novel to do more research into what is true and what comes from Chevalier's fascinating imagination.

The book was released in the UK earlier this year, and I've already read several great reviews. I can only hope one day soon Tracy Chevalier reaches the necessary status for simultaneous publication in the U.S. and the UK.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

children's book review: Maybelle Goes to Tea by Katie Speck

Welcome to day two of 2008 Cybils Easy Readers Week at nomadreader! Yesterday, I reviews I Will Surprise My Friend! by Mo Willems.

Maybelle Goes to Tea is the story of Maybelle, a cockroach so feminine and allegedly cute she wears a pink bow and pearls; Henry the flea, who lives with Maybelle at the Peabody's house; and Maurice the fly who sometimes meanders inside. The Peabodys, of course, do not know these critters live in their house. At the first sight of them, bug bombs and exterminators appear. In this installment, Mrs. Peabody is hosting a lady's tea. Maybelle cannot follow her rules, "when it's light, stay out of sight; if you're spied, better hide; and never meet with human feet," with Mrs. Peabody baking chocolate surprise cookies.

I like the idea behind the story. It could be comforting to kids to have a cute face put on household pests. After living in the South for years, I believe cleanliness does not equal buglessness, and it is inevitable for children to come across the pests. I don't understand why Maybelle needs a pink ribbon and pearls to be a girl, but I can overlook it. The big problem for me as an adult reader of this book is the way Speck dances between reality and fantasy. The reality of bugs in homes is offset with the fantasy of a roach, fly and flea as friends. The reality of the cat chasing these critters is set off with the fantasy of human antics. Maybelle Goes to Tea is part allegory, part fun and part serious. For me, it's not enough of any of those to be great. That being said, it's a fine, entertaining read for early readers. In many ways, it reminded me of the crazy antics of Amelia Bedelia, whose antics I loved to read about when I was a child. If you like Maybelle Goes to Tea, then be sure to check out Katie Speck's first Maybelle book, Maybelle in the Soup.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Pages: 60
Publication date: 2008
Source: my local public library 

Monday, November 2, 2009

children's book review: I Will Surprise My Friend! by Mo Willems

Welcome to the first day of 2008 Cybils Finalists: Easy Readers at nomadreader! The Cybils are children's and young adult literary awards awarded by book bloggers. The 2009 nomination period has passed, and the panel is busy reading all of the nominations. The finalists will be announced on January 1, 2010. I'd love to serve on a future Cybils panel, so I'm reading all of the finalists from 2008 and making my case for which book should win. This week, I'm looking at the 2008 Easy Reader finalists. Each day I'll review on of the five finalists, and I'll bring you my verdict on Saturday.

It's no secret I adore Mo Willems. Knuffle Bunny is one of my favorite children's books, and Knuffle Bunny Too is perhaps my favorite children's picture book. I thoroughly enjoy his blog as well.  The Elephant and Piggie series consistently manages to delight young children and adults. Although I can't speak from experience, these are books I would not tire of reading to my children, yet they're simple enough to captivate and enchant children as young as two. I don't know how he does it, but I'm so glad he has the talent.

I Will Surprise My Friend! is hilarious. Elephant and Piggie are out for a walk and come across a squirrel hiding to surprise his friend. As both squirrels loved the surprise, they quickly decide to it again. Naturally, Elephant and Piggie decide it is a good idea to surprise each other too. The joy of Elephant and Piggie books, of course, is not necessarily the plot. Telling the story is never as entertaining as reading it. Willems displays a multitude of emotions with his simple drawings, and the chemistry between Elephant and Piggie is fantastic. If you haven't read the Elephant and Piggie books, plop down at a bookstore or library and read a few. I bet you'll find yourself laughing and trying to figure out what friends and family members have children of appropriate ages to give these books.

Cybils Easy Reader week is off to an excellent start. There is another Elephant and Piggie book in contention too!

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5 stars)
Pages: 57
Publication date: 2008
Source: my local public library

Sunday, November 1, 2009

sunday salon: the week in review

It was a busy week, and I didn't get very much reading done.

Currently reading: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. I was thrilled when Her Fearful Symmetry came in for me at the library this week. I'm only a quarter of the way through it, but I am really enjoying it so far. I haven't read Niffenegger's first novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, but I loved her two illustrated novels: The Three Incestuous Sisters and The Adventuress.

Books finished this week:
  • The Sound of Language by Amulya Malladi
Books reviewed this week:
Books received for review:
  • The Fifth Servant by Kenneth Wishnia
  • Hard Work by Roy Williams
The coming week:
In preparation for the new round of Cybils winners, I'm reading last year's finalists and winners in each category to see if I would have voted differently than the panel. This week I'll feature each of the five finalists and bring you my verdict on Saturday.